With great fanfare, the proponents of an initiative to raise property taxes in California by $12 billion a year announced they had turned in over 1.7 million signatures to qualify the measure.
Their press release was headlined “Schools and Communities First make history with most ever signatures submitted.”
It’s a wonder they didn’t break their arms trying to pat themselves on the back. For those who have forgotten, the measure, entitled the California Schools and Local Communities Funding Act of 2020, would remove one of Proposition 13’s most important protections – the limitation on annual increases in taxable value – from business and commercial properties. The increased tax burden would be passed along to consumers and taxpayers who are already struggling with California’s high cost of living.
Multiple efforts to “split” the property tax roll have failed over the last 40 years; most never made it to the ballot and the one that did, voters rejected. Prop. 13’s continued popularity remains remarkably strong to this day as evidenced by a recent Public Policy Institute of California poll showing that a strong majority of Californians believe that the initiative is “mostly a good thing.”
One recent effort by the proponents of split roll was targeted for the 2018 ballot. Although they collected sufficient signatures, they missed the 2018 ballot, so that measure was then kicked over to the November 2020 ballot. Knowing that the proposal had numerous drafting errors, the proponents chose to start the process all over again.
According to documents from the California Secretary of State, for the two qualification efforts combined, proponents raised about $17 million. It’s a cautionary tale for their would-be donors. Just because some political interests have massive stockpiles of cash, doesn’t mean they spend it wisely.
As is true with most initiatives, proponents had to pay professional signature gatherers, the hired guns who stand outside of big-box stores and grocery retailers trying to convince people to sign. It is a cutthroat business and some initiative proponents have, in the past, paid as much as $10 per valid signature.
Even at inflated prices, proponents had to engage in deceptive practices to get the number of signatures they needed. Paid signature gatherers frequently had signs on their tables that read, “Protect Proposition 13, Sign Here.” How many signatories mistakenly signed an anti-Prop. 13 initiative thinking that they were doing the opposite?
Not to burst their bubble, but voters need to be reminded that what split roll supporters did pales in comparison to the historic signature gathering effort of Proposition 13 in 1978. Unlike the modern day attack on Prop 13, 100 percent of the signature gathering for Proposition 13 was done by volunteers, with only $28,500 spent in qualifying the measure (covering costs for printing and mailing the petitions). More than 1.2 million signatures were submitted, which represented more than 12 percent of the 9.58 million registered voters at that time. The number of valid signatures in Los Angeles County alone was sufficient to qualify the initiative statewide.
By comparison, while split roll proponents submitted 1.7 million raw signatures, this represents only 8 percent of the state’s 20.66 million registered voters.
Between now and November, [ I ] will deal with all the substantive problems presented by this horrible tax proposal. For example, when even notable Democrats like Willie Brown come out against it, and county assessors say that it would be virtually impossible to implement, that’s a clue that voters need to scrutinize the proposal carefully.
At the moment, proponents might boast about the number of signatures they have gathered, but that is no measure of how it will fare at the polls. They should also heed the wisdom of Proverbs 16, which reminds us that pride goeth before the fall.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.